At some level, you have to admire Frederick Wiseman. For 45 years — averaging about one film a year — he’s maintained a consistent style as a documentarian, basically only changing his subject matter. He’s the Woody Allen of non-fiction filmmaking.
His approach is simple: Take a subject — the police, for instance, or Central Park or an insane asylum — and dedicate two hours to a mostly narration-free chronicle of what that “means” … as if such meaning can be boiled down into two hours. The results have been good (Law & Order and Central Park) and in one instance stupendous (The Titicut Follies) but the process is old-fashioned and long ago ceased being groundbreaking. He’s never been nominated for an Oscar, and I can’t say that’s a great omission.
Thanks to Errol Morris, Michael Moore and cable channels clamoring for cheap programming, documentaries have flourished for two decades. Pip-pip to Wiseman for maintaining a perceived journalistic objectivity, where he never introduces himself (a la Moore or Morgan Spurlock) into the narrative:
His subjects do, and he records. That’s the arrangement. But forgive me a smirk for questioning the efficacy of such an approach, if it even exists. With every splice of film, he’s making a choice — why not just acknowledge it and streamline the storytelling?
I have nothing against Wiseman’s approach, per se; but in a documentary like Crazy Horse — about a Paris burlesque house renowned for its exotic nude shows — a little context wouldn’t hurt. Sure, we can figure things out eventually, but Wiseman has long stopped serving his subjects, and now serves only his filmmaking idiosyncrasies. (Ten subtitled minutes of Frenchmen arguing about the economics of a strip tease don’t scream “cinematic.”)
What is cinematic are the Cirque du Soleil-esque dance sequences: Erotic, dreamy, startlingly theatrical. It’s visual dynamite which Wiseman does treat with a luscious attention to the flesh. Excerpt them, and divorce them from the idea of being part of a documentary that purports to explain some Greater Meaning, and you have a pretty good peep show.
Wiseman is 81 now; I suppose it’s unreasonable to expect him to change. But Crazy Horse doesn’t really capture anything missing from my life, and what else is a good documentary for?
Now playing at the Angelika Mockingbird Station
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 9, 201.